Sunday, March 23, 2014

Just Another Dive? Not To Me.



I've spent a fair amount of time in what would be considered "dive bars" over the years; more so the smoke-filled version of my younger days. There are those who undoubtedly look down upon these no-frills joints, but for some of the rest of us, there is a comforting, laid-back vibe that can yield an easy peace of sorts and sometimes much, much more.  This weekend had me thinking about dive bars a bit more than usual; both old and new.

Keith chose this month's Posse dinner and we went with a bit of an unorthodox choice in comparison to our usual dining choices: Helen's JAD (Just Another Dive) Bar and Grill.  We drove past this nondescript Armour Road tavern more than a few times and admittedly didn't give it much of a second thought, but one day I saw that it had been voted Best Tavern In The Northland, so I took a shot and searched for Helen's on Yelp.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn Helen's scored some righteous reviews for food and service; frequently lauded as a local "best-kept secret" (Yelp gets a bad rap these days, but I have to say this is one example of why I'm glad it exists). Helen's has actually been around for a long time; one of the oldest in the Midwest.  It was built in 1885 and has been a popular tavern since the 40's.  Word is they tried to remove Helen's name at one point, until a vocal contingent convinced them otherwise.

So hit it up we Posse crew did and I have to say, we enjoyed the hell out of it.  It was a chill spot but with some cool decor, particularly the Boulevard-inspired wall murals and wooden tables.


Speaking of KC's beloved Boulevard, the amiable barkeep alerted me to the fact that they had the recently released Grainstorm Black Rye IPA on tap, so that was my evening kickoff (and it was a spicy-good, slap-your-face kickoff to boot...SO good.).  K and I split an order of the goat cheese appetizer with housemade marinara and walnuts and it was quite good.



 The rest of the gang soon join us and we soon we were deep in some of Helen's hearty grub.  Keith and Charlotte got the plate-sized tenderloin sandwiches, served with hand-cut fries and horseradish.  This was a killer sandwich; just crazy good.  I ordered Amanda's pizza, a delicious thin-crust pie with bacon and pepperoncinis and it tasted that much finer with the Perennial Black Walnut Dunkel, a chocolate-brown Dunkelweizen from Perennial Artisan Ales. The table's fare ranged from enormous burgers to patty melts and everyone was more than satisfied.



The satisfaction was from more than just the excellent eats, though. I must admit.  It was the dim lighting, the terrific music from the jukebox, March Madness flickering on the TVs...the whole kick-back, sip-your-beer and just hang loose with your friends kind of night that seems so increasingly rare in this fast-paced life. You'd have thought I would have learned long ago not to underestimate a dive bar.  Sitting at Helen's, I was reminded of dive bars of old that brought that similar feel, in particular, a hometown hang in St. Marys, West Virginia called The Hill. The Hill was one of those dimly-lit, hazy dive bars and when I went there, it was owned by the incomparable Myrtle Maston.  Myrt, as we knew her, ran this tiny joint like a family affair, welcoming anyone and everyone. Cheap beer, pool tables and a killer jukebox were certainly the staples, but there was many a moment of both raucous revelry and quiet joy to be found.  Myrt's food, not typically advertised, but if you knew about it, well, you KNEW...Myrt could rustle up some stellar chow: a mouth-watering brute of a burger called the Myrtburger and some amazing homemade, somewhat-spicy chili. Always good, especially with a cold brew beside it.  She always had bottles of hot sauce available too, as Connie and I could attest on the nights we just settled for pork rinds doused in hot sauce.


Myrt was also a big music fan and it showed in more than just the jukebox.  The Hill's karaoke night was the one I participated in the most, mostly thanks to Myrtle herself, who kept submitting my name to get up and sing. And well, you just don't refuse Myrtle. She also frequently hosted live music and while we enjoyed many a band there, the most cherished nights were the most unexpected, at least for me.  Every now and then, after closing, Myrt turned off the "OPEN" neon sign and shut off most of the lights, and some local musicians would break out their guitars, banjos and mandolins and start jamming.  The music ranged from bluegrass to gospel to country to classic rock and everything in between. We would sing and harmonize and a simple spell would weave around its participants, seeming to lift them to another plane of existence; a shelter from the storm of reality outside that front door. Every time. These random jams would be my first experience with a group of musicians who would later evolve into something even greater: a makeshift band that would continue to meet up and become the Fuzzy Mothers. The Fuzzy Mothers became a long-standing jam session that seemed to grow beyond all of its members and evolve into even greater expressions of local music like the Music by the Lake event and the Waverly Woodstock festival.  One of the founding members of this group, Fred Barley, lost his long battle with cancer this past weekend. Reading the dedications to him on Facebook, the sadness is certainly palpable but one thought was prominent: his music will last forever.  The music of those organic jams of old and the Fuzzy Mothers of today (as I wrote about in former posts), evoke a homespun feeling that eases your mind and soothes your soul.  I felt it in that smoky hometown dive bar as purely as I felt it in those lakeside concerts at Abicht's Landing in St. Marys. The following video is a Stew's Music Brew video featuring a pic of the Fuzzy Mothers and the soulful, haunting sounds of Fred Barley singing "When the Mountains Cry".  RIP Fred.



Great things can come from unassuming dive bars...great moments with cherished friends, killer grub and soul-stirring music among them.  Just another dive?  Not to me.

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